As superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee has become the most celebrated - and controversial - schools chief in the country. Her efforts to get rid of bad teachers by abolishing tenure and seniority rights (in exchange for much higher salaries for the good ones) were lauded by both Barack Obama and John McCain in their final presidential debate last year, and also landed Rhee on the cover of Time.
But Rhee's sudden celebrity has come at a price. The attention has made her a prime target for teachers unions and others opposed to her "reform" agenda. "At the same time it's generating support and political capital, it's painting a target on your back," says Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute. "If you're opposed to merit pay or charter schooling, you suddenly decide that Michelle is a really good target to go after."
Rhee's supporters, though, argue that the ideas she champions have taken on a broader life of their own and will continue to have momentum, even if their highest-profile proponent fails. "Most of the media stories present it that if Rhee fails, her whole approach will never be tried again," says Tim Daly, who succeeded her as head of the national New Teacher Project. "But districts across the country are already quietly planning to follow a similar path, though it will be less flashy - and they'll do it regardless of the D.C. outcome."